It was over seven months since Lee Schreck graduated from Lucky State College with a double major in zoology and French. Ever since he was 8, his dream was to study animal biology and work at a zoo. However, he had found the post-college zoo job market bleak. He moved back with his parents and had to take work as a census taker, a mall security guard, and a library aide to make ends meet. The closest he got to animals was feeding the goldfish at the library and telling kids not to tap the glass.
One night, after an unpleasant few hours with some cheap vodka and a bag of half-thawed popcorn shrimp, he was ready to toss his dream into the dustbin when he spotted an ad in the back of a magazine:
Unconventional Zoo seeks Unconventional Worker: Work with animals, perform multiple jobs, gain life experience. Must be able to lift 70 lbs. Some light typing. Call Today!
In his somewhat unmoored state, Lee hadn’t found it odd that the magazine was in his aspiring solider of fortune brother’s Mercenary Monthly. He called the number, which was a recording instructing him to leave a message and show up at one of three pre-set times. The next day, Lee drove 200 miles in his battered Subaru to a rural town that he had never heard of before. It wasn’t even on the map and when he asked the old timer at the gas station, he looked at him queerly, spit, and said, “Zoo kid? There ain’t no zoo around here.” Lee was excited, thinking that this might be a kind of secret zoo with rare and endangered animals.
Now he stood in front of a rusty gate. There was no sign and no bell to ring. He checked a piece of paper with a scribbled address: 241 Ungulate Dr. After a few minutes of inspection, he found a crushed, yellowed electricity bill with the same address.
“This must be the place,” Lee said with confidence. He hit the gate with his fist, which produced a low rattle. He did it again. “Hello, I’m here about the job,” he said. He was about to say it louder, when there was a sudden shotgun blast.
Lee dove under his car, swallowing a handful of dirt.
“Goddamn it! I told you not to come back here you sonofabitch! I don’t care what the American Zoo Association says, we’re a sanctuary!” The gate creaked and a middle aged man in a cowboy hat came out, reloading a double barrel shotgun.
Lee leapt up, hands held high. “Don’t shoot!”
“Who in the Jesus H. Christ are you?” The man had an eye patch and walked with a limp.
“I’m Lee Schreck…I came about the job.”
The man suddenly lit up. “Lordy son, sorry about the fireworks. We’ve had some, um, trespassers lately. Jeremiah J. Greenborough, owner and propetier.” He limped over and shook Lee’s hand vigorously. Lee noticed several hole shaped scars between thumb and forefinger. “Rattlesnake. Had to suck it out myself. Alright Shrick, come on into our little menagerie.”
Jeremiah clapped a hand around Lee’s back and led him down a narrow, overgrown path. They emerged into a concreted area with several cages. Lee didn’t see anything in them.
“So Shreek, as you see we’ve got a pretty small operation. But we’ve got something those bigshots don’t have: heart. Heart and a little something else, which I’ll tell you about later.”
They continued to walk; past a dilapidated concessions stand, a tiny bandstand, some piles of hay, and more empty cages. The only animals Lee saw were some crows perched on a boxcar.
“Um, sir, where are the animals?”
Jeremiah’s face clouded over. “Impatient pup, aren’t you Shreem? Hmmph.” Jeremiah took a slug from a hipflask and wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve. They walked a little farther and Jeremiah let them into a small barn with a set of medieval looking keys. The smell manure, hay, and sweat hit Lee like a sock of pennies. He covered his mouth with a bandana.
“You’ll need a strong stomach for this work boy. Well, there you go, there’s some animals for you.” There were six stalls and in one, leisurely munching on some grass was a horse painted black and white.
Lee took the bandana away from his mouth, took a gulp of air, and said timidly, “Sir, that looks like a horse painted like a zebra.”
Jeremiah spit. “You some kinda zoologist there Shrak?”
“Schreck. And, actually, I studied zoo-“
“Shut your chow hole! You goddamn college boys and your ‘degrees.’ Well that degree’s as useless as handful of monkey shit when you got an enraged and possibly drunk baboon coming at you.” Jeremiah rolled up his sleeve to show a dark scar. He looked Lee right in the eyes. “I didn’t get bit by representatives of all the animal kingdoms to be lectured by some poindexter with an unpronounceable name! You’re in my zoo now punk!”
Lee backed away and tripped over a pile of horseshoes. “Ouch. Listen Mr. Greenborough, maybe I should be going.”
“Don’t you want to see the rest of the zoo? Meet the crew? Come on, it’ll be fun! We haven’t even got to the best part.” Lee didn’t have time to protest, as Jeremiah grabbed him by the arm and led him out of the stables. “See this eye? Lost it to a bunch of lorikeets, high on paint fumes. Don’t begrudge them though. I made a hell of a headdress out of their feathers.”
Outside, a young woman with a blonde ponytail came up to them. She had what looked to be a lion pelt slung over one shoulder. “Hi chief.”
“Hi hon. Meet Shrek. He’s our new factotum.” Lee shook hands with the woman, who seemed perfectly normal.
She smiled at him. “You’ll like it here.” As Jeremiah was lighting a thin cigar, she winked at Lee and whispered. “Maybe we can watch the bat’s doin’ it sometime. It’s pretty great. OK, be seeing you.”
“Great little gal. Been with us for nearly four months now. OK, now for the fun part. You a bettin’ man Shrok?”
“Not really. I mean, some buddies at college and I would have these marathon euchre tournaments and…”
“Swell pants son, let’s go.” Jeremiah took them into a dirty women’s bathroom. “What you’re about to see is on the d.l., OK?” Lee nodded, still wondering how the hell he could get out of there, even more so when Jeremiah opened a stall, pushed him in, and got in with him.
“Mr. Greenborough, I’m really not…” Suddenly the tiled floor was sinking beneath them. It was an elevator. It didn’t go very far before stopping. Lee heard loud voices and whooping, smelled cigar smoke and cheap alcohol. In front of them was a large fence with a door. Jeremiah lifted a wire latch and they watched into a kind of arena. There was a crowd of about 30 men circling the edges of a dirt covered ring. It took a minute for Lee to get his bearings, but then he saw what was in the ring and he stood agog. A rhesus monkey was battling a monitor lizard. The monitor had size, but the monkey had speed. And a broken beer bottle.
“Holy shit,” Lee said.
“Something else, aint’ it? And to think people want to stop these beautiful creatures from doing what they were put on God’s green earth to do.” Jeremiah motioned to a woman in a polka dot bikini and fuzzy panda bear head. She brought him a horn filled with liquid.
“Thanks sweetie.” He took a large drink. “Ahh. I tell you Schrif, you haven’t drank brandy until you’ve had it out of a black rhino horn.”
“It’s that illegal?” Lee asked, wiping his forehead with a bandana.
“You’re not a narc are you? Not one of those PETA bastards?” Jeremiah jabbed Lee with a finger and then relaxed. “ I tell you Shreem, the day I can’t sit in my own ivory chair, drink liquor from a rhino horn, and watch exotic animals go ape shit on one another, is the day I pack up and leave this country.” He handed Lee the horn. Lee took a tentative sip.
“That is pretty good sir.”
“Damn straight! So you see what we got going on here. It’s a little something of everything-shovel poop, take bets, clean up blood, stitch a lemur ear back on here and there. I’m trying to start a camp this summer, get some kids in, have them work in the kitchen, make t-shirts, clean places we can’t reach.” Jeremiah let of a contented sigh and extinguished his cigar. “We got it nice here Sharp. Our own piece of heaven. Plus health insurance and monkey butlers. So what’d you say?”
Lee, overwhelmed by the spectacle, thought about it for a second. It wasn’t as if he had anything to got back to. And he did want a monkey butler. “What the hell. When can I start?”
Jeremiah let out a big laugh and genially put his arm around Lee’s neck. “You’re alright kid. Say, you ever make sweet, sweet love on a Bengal tiger rug?”
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Portland Fiction Project
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